Alabama's Escape from Mediocrity

Today marks the two year anniversary of the University of Alabama hiring Nate Oats. Blake Byler takes a look at how far Alabama has come in just two years.

If you were to ask the Alabama Basketball faithful to describe the program during the 2010s, they would likely use one word: mediocre. The program that was once a force to be reckoned with in the SEC in the 1980’s and 1990’s under coach Wimp Sanderson and had some memorable tournament runs in the early 2000’s under Mark Gottfried had been all but forgotten by anyone outside of the diehard fans who held out hope every year that ‘this year will be different.’ But time and time again, impressive wins were followed by ugly losses, late season collapses, and season-long underperformances. Two years ago, Athletic Director Greg Byrne made a bold, and considerably risky move to change the narrative around this basketball program. He hired Nate Oats. Let’s take a look back and see how we got here.

Former NBA Coach of the Year Avery Johnson was brought in after the firing of Anthony Grant, and immediately Johnson sought to change the attitude towards basketball in Tuscaloosa. In an attempt to raise excitement around the program, Johnson’s slogan for the team, “Buckle Up,” was slapped onto shirts, signs, posters, and even foam fingers given to the student section. Johnson’s biggest strength was his recruiting and evaluation of high school talent. Johnson recruited the highest rated recruit in school history, lottery pick Collin Sexton, and recruited many other prominent players such as Kira Lewis Jr., John Petty, Herbert Jones, Braxton Key, and Donta Hall. Johnson even signed All-American Baylor point guard Jared Butler, before his eventual transfer.

Despite all this overwhelming talent, Johnson could never seem to turn that talent into winning basketball. A trend became prominent of Alabama knocking off a nationally ranked team, and immediately dropping the next game against an inferior opponent. On top of that, Alabama lost at least 3 of its last 5 games every year under Johnson. Even in Johnson’s best season, 2018, Alabama only won 20 games with a team boasting the talents of Sexton, Petty, Key, Hall, and Jones. Alabama lost 15 games every year under Johnson and lost in the first round of the NIT three times. The nail in the coffin for Johnson was losing to Norfolk State in the first round of the 2019 NIT, in front of a crowd of about 30% capacity in Coleman Coliseum. Excitement and optimism for the program was at an all-time low, and a big change was needed.

Greg Byrne made this change and hired Nate Oats, a young coach from the University of Buffalo. Oats’ Buffalo teams had begun to make noise in his four years there, winning the MAC Tournament three times and making the Round of 32 in his final two years. Oats brought in an exciting, fast-paced offense that is any guard’s dream to be a part of. His teams at Buffalo shot a high volume of 3’s and ranked in the top 6 nationally in points per game in his final two years. This was the exact system needed to succeed with Alabama’s talent.

In year 1 under Oats, that system was put on full display. Excitement began to grow around the program, as Alabama started shooting 3’s at an impressive clip and putting up 90 points almost like it was routine. Oats’ development transformed John Petty into one of the most efficient shooters in America, and Herb Jones began to show offensive flashes in addition to his stellar defensive play. The raw talent that Avery Johnson was able to bring in was finally showing improvement in Oats’ system.

The biggest question mark that came with the hiring of Oats was how well he would be able to recruit. He immediately answered that question by securing arguably his two greatest recruiting jobs to date: getting Kira Lewis and John Petty to return to Alabama after entering the transfer portal. Oats has answered the recruiting doubters by recruiting from any and everywhere, whether it be in state (JD Davison), through the transfer portal (Jahvon Quinerly), junior college (Keon Ellis), or even internationally (Josh Primo).

Now here we are, approaching the end of year 2 of the Nate Oats era, with today marking two years exactly since his hiring. Alabama is in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2004, and not only possesses one of the most prolific offenses in college basketball but ranks in the top 3 in defensive efficiency as well. Oats has gotten his uber-talented offensive players to buy into the defensive end whole heartedly, and it has made this team, and program, a force to be reckoned with. Oats continues to be blazing hot on the recruiting trail, with a dream of a system for high school players anywhere in the world. Nate Oats has pulled Alabama Basketball from the never-ending pit of mediocrity, and all signs point to this program being here to stay.


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